The Pitt News, Oct. 30, 2019
By Alexander Hanna, contributing writer
Pittsburgh, PA. -- Matt Parmelee puts his '11 Pitt computer science degree to use at his job as a software engineer. But since '17, he's had a side gig combining two of his other passions: birds and coffee. Redstart Roasters -- named after the American Redstart, a small warbler -- is his second calling.
Matt, right, is the CEO of Redstart Roasters, a coffee roastery that sells beans grown by farms holding bird-friendly certifications from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The certification tells consumers that the beans they're buying aren't the product of deforestation, which can harm bird habitats in places such as Ethiopia or Colombia, where much of Redstart's coffee is grown.
Roasting started out as a hobby and became a business. "The bird thing came in later," he said. "It very easily combines my interest in coffee and birds."
Matt hopes to provide coffee to the people of Pittsburgh while also preserving wildlife and maintaining biodiversity in coffee-growing countries around the world. "It's a certification that guarantees growing practices that minimize deforestation and maximize biodiversity," Matt said. "We like to support farms that do things that way where possible."
His roastery maintains its bird-friendly certification by getting beans from farms that hold a bird-friendly certification. Matt works with distributors who help him purchase the coffee from certified farms."We work with Royal New York in New York and Cafe Imports in Minneapolis. They're much more qualified than I am to say, Hey, what's this farm like?' because they've been there. I know they're not just trying to sell me a bag of coffee; they care about this as much as I do."
But Matt has bigger goals for Redstart Roasters. "In the short term it's a collaborative effort with my importers; in the long term I hope to eventually work directly with a number of farms," he said.
Redstart's bird-friendly coffee is now on the shelves of a number of Pittsburgh stores, including the 52nd Street Market, HLane Dry Goods & Coffee in Swissvale and the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Hannah Critzer, the owner of HLane, said there's a demand for Redstart coffee. "I have a lot of people who come in specifically looking for local indie coffee roasters and Redstart -- even though they're brand-new -- is already getting a bit of a following which is why I carry them," she said. Her shop supports local small businesses ranging from the Pittsburgh Pickle Co. to local jewelers. HLane has held Redstart coffee for a month and carries five roasts and a tea made from the coffee bean itself. "Whenever I run out, people are asking me when I'll be getting another order in," Critzer said.
While Redstart Roasters is relatively new, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center first introduced the bird-friendly certification in 1998 and '99. According to the Migratory Bird Center, coffee farmers apply to have their farms inspected. Those that pass are awarded a bird-friendly certification. Farms are expected to have shade coverage of at least 40%, must have an organic certification and meet other criteria to receive bird-friendly certification.
And Matt admits certification is not without its problems.
"It's the strictest coffee certification out there. It was originally developed for focusing on Central and South America," he said. "The problem is that it's a little too focused on those areas. Obviously growing areas you'd find in Peru are very different from those in Ethiopia ... but the language [of the Smithsonian's requirements] just does not apply just because the territory is so different." These narrow criteria may keep farms interested in being bird-friendly from being certified, he said.
Scott Sillett, head of the Migratory Bird Center, said his organization is working to include any coffee farms that want to participate. He cited farms in Indonesia as an example, saying the center is working with Conservation International to develop criteria that could apply to the island nation's geographical location and its growing lands. For example, native tree species are vital because insects have adapted to feed on those plants. Plants replaced with foreign species for the sake of providing better shade would have a devastating affect on the insects -- and without insects, local birds lose a food source. "One of our criteria is that you can't just have one species of shade tree," Sillett said. "You need to have 10 species and the majority of those species need to be native. One of the things we're working on with Conservation International is to come up with a list of native tree species in Indonesia that could serve as shade trees."
Sillett said the center is working to fix these issues so Matt and other roasters can get bird-friendly beans from a variety of countries. And with a wider variety of beans, Matt may offer a wider selection of flavors.